Metal Mama Judi Ellias-Ochs started her career working in interior architecture, which she describes as “sculpting interiors.” Unable to find furniture and accessories such as benches, towel racks, doorknobs and decorative items that she liked, she decided to design and make them herself.
From those beginnings, her business has evolved into Metal Mama’s Ironworks, a Manitou Springs shop where Ellias-Ochs fabricates and repairs furniture, gates, railings, signs, art pieces and unique jewelry.
Her pieces are on display in public spaces including the Penrose Library gardens, for which she designed a fence, bench and tree with plasma-cut leaves bearing the names of donors. Another commission was for bed frames and chairs for the log cabins at Mueller State Park. Her works also are seen in corporate offices and private collections throughout the country.
Ellias-Ochs’s products reflect her welding skill and artistic imagination. She uses recycled materials such as Harley-Davidson gas tanks, which become the bodies of fanciful flamingos. For a chiropractor’s office, she welded together bits and pieces of scrap metal to make a skeleton. In her studio in the former garage of Jerry’s Auto, a large flower sprouts from an old wheel rim.
She uses new Canadian steel to execute unique gates, fences and railings, often hand-finished with colored dyes and waxes.
“My patinas and finishes are my specialties,” she said.
Ellias-Ochs earned a degree in interior architecture from Wayne State University in Detroit, but didn’t become involved in the metal arts until she moved to Colorado in 1987.
At first, she hired welders to fabricate the designs she created for her Colorado Collection of metal products, which were sold at the Denver Merchandise Mart. But she soon decided she wanted to do the fabrication herself.
“A guy who was working for me taught me how to weld,” she said. Her teacher was Scott Mannering, who went on the become chairman of the welding department at Pikes Peak Community College.
“Eventually I got my own space underneath the bridge at the Depot Arts District,” she said. She moved from a small studio there to another, larger space when her business started to grow. By 1990, the business, called Colorado Ironworks, was successful enough that she required a larger space, and Ellias-Ochs bought a building at 615 S. Sierra Madre St.
Metal Mama’s is a spinoff of that business, she said. She moved into the building in early 2015.
“I had been robbed so many times, harassed and broken into, that I said I have to get out of Colorado Springs,” she said.
She bought the garage from then-owner Jerry Carter, along with a second building to the east and a parking lot in between.
She had planned to use the second structure as a studio, but lost the building and part of the parking lot to the Westside Avenue Action Plan project. It took a year and a half of negotiations and the assistance of an eminent domain attorney to get the price she wanted.
Although she lost some business as the result of construction, she knows the street is going to be attractive when the project is done and will bring in more customers.
“The first summer, before the construction, it was fabulous,” she said. “I sold lots of things. Last summer was not anywhere near as good, but I think this summer will be better.”
Ellias-Ochs’ ever-changing displays in front of the Manitou shop already lure people to stop and take a look. One of her Harley flamingos perches right beside the street, and motorists can’t miss the large metal joint, glowing from within, at the west edge of the property. Ellias-Ochs thought that would be a fun salute to Manitou’s two recreational marijuana stores, a block away.
As she focuses on getting ready for the summer season, Ellias-Ochs admits that her work often seems like play.
“Art is playing and experimenting,” she said. “A lot of my inspiration is from being childlike and very enthusiastic.”
Ellias-Ochs said she’s been interested in drawing, painting and making things since she was a little girl.
“I was brought up a very proper girl, but I was a real tomboy — I liked the boy stuff,” she said. “In high school I asked to take shop, but they said no, that I had to take home economics.”
Although that was disappointing, Ellias-Ochs still found value in the home ec classes.
“I learned to sew. The process is very much like welding — you’re stitching together pieces of steel,” she said.
Ellias-Ochs still owns two downtown buildings, which she rents out for additional income. She also teaches welding and blacksmithing, and plans to ramp up the classes in a few months.
“If you’re an artist, it’s very difficult,” she said. “It helps to have something on the side.”
In many ways, though, “it’s like any other business,” she said. “You’ve got to really work at it. If you’ve got a passion for it, you definitely should go for it and try to make it.” n CSBJ